Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
before D.C. Council Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety & Committee of the Whole
Natacia Knapper, Managing Organizer
May 20, 2021
Good afternoon, Councilmember Allen & Chairman Mendelson. My name is Natacia Knapper and I’m here representing the American Civil Liberties Union of DC as a Managing Organizer and I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 15,000 members and supporters in the District.
We strongly agree with the Police Reform Commission (“PRC”) that we must decenter police from public safety approaches. Doing that effectively will take both significant investments in non-police services and resources that create true public safety and will require ending the reliance on police where they are ineffective and where evidence has shown they create more harm. This will be the focus of my testimony today.
First, we need to acknowledge policing is not, nor has it ever been, rooted in community care. But for decades, policymakers have ignored the community call for resources, housing, and other public health supports and instead invested heavily in the carceral system by increasing funding for law enforcement and creating new criminal penalties.
Sincerely addressing harmful disparities in the District will require everyone, but especially elected officials and D.C. agency leaders, to commit to dramatically reimagining how they have even viewed “safety.”Lack of stable, affordable housing and food access is not safe. Lack of in-school resources for our Black and brown youth is not safe. Lack of trauma-informed mental health supports is not safe.
Nowhere is the failed emphasis on “policing as solution” more apparent than in the District’s approach to gun violence. Increases in gun violence always seem to erroneously justify aggressive policing strategies and tactics but we can’t keep relying on violent, punishment-centered frameworks that at best don’t work and at worst cost lives. Our violent systems have created conditions of desperation and to respond to a traumatized community with more violence is unconscionable.
We must also stop disconnecting the gun violence we are experiencing in D.C. from the police violence we experience – this is the very reason why it’s so problematic to have law enforcement be the first responders to every crisis call emergency dispatchers receive.
One of the many ways the Council can move forward is by significantly reducing the role of the police in our communities and in our crisis response. To do that responsibly means actually putting resources – meaning funding and qualified people, including people with real lived experience - into shoring up the services that are missing. We echo the Police Reform Commission’s call for strengthening DC’s safety net as a key component of increasing public safety in our communities.
The District currently has a very healthy budget and we are receiving $2.2 billion federal dollars over the next three years with the American Rescue Plan. This is an opportunity for District leaders to make a critical shift. The Council should decenter police in the District’s approach to public safety by making significant investments in violence intervention and interruption programs, mental health and substance abuse resources, deeply affordable housing to end DC’s homelessness crisis, supports for students in schools, and by putting an end to food deserts.
Other PRC recommendations that the ACLU-DC strongly supports include:
- Reducing the Metropolitan Police Department’s (MPD) budget by up to $140 million per year by terminating its school safety contract, spending less on crowd-control supplies and military style equipment, and reducing its patrol force by 25%. Pointing to the Jails and Justice report this reduction in the patrol force can be done solely through attrition – since FY14, between 4% and 10% of the sworn force leaves MPD every year.
- Supporting the shared PRC and Jails & Justice recommendation to move enforcement of traffic violations to the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) with a non-law enforcement response
- Speaking also as a Ward 1 resident, who is proud of being part of such a vibrant, multicultural community, we also want to uplift PRC’s recommendation to decriminalize low-level offenses like illegal street-vending. Similarly, we support decriminalizing sex work in the District.
- There must also be a complete overhaul of DC’s crisis-response system, particularly with how 911 and 311 calls are handled.
In March 2021, the Director of the OUC reported that over 8,000 calls for mental or behavioral health crises were noted in a six-month period in 2020 . That’s right – 8,000. As these statistics show, residents need mental health assistance and intervention frequently, which all too often means coming into contact with law enforcement.
Before I close, I want to address the need for the Council to change the way it conducts these hearings. Time and time again, I attend these hearings and they are filled with and centered on the people who either have the privilege of doing this as their paid work – like myself – or people who can carve out hours in the middle of the traditional workday to be here. The Committee of the Whole and its leadership have a responsibility to do better by DC residents. As a community organizer, I know the people who are being left out of this space and we cannot continue to make decisions when the most vulnerable people of this city have no voice in the polices that impact their lives the most. Today’s hearing is a good example of this -- covering such a wide range of recommendations and dense legislation in one workday is not accessible. We urge Chairman Mendelson and the entire Council to reexamine and change this inequitable process. One way to start this is by involving the Council’s Office of Racial Equity to gather input from DC residents on their barriers to engagement with this process.
It’s clear that PRC’s recommendations go well beyond policing and will require a whole government approach – every agency and every Councilmember must be committed to making the kind of transformational change that this moment demands. Small incremental changes dishonor the gravity of this work and as the Council looks towards solutions, remember that none of this should be done without the input and guidance of impacted community members throughout the District. Thank you.